We’ve had this date from the beginning, George Saunders. And I thought you were going to be the apple of my eye. That I’d tear my way through this collection and let no manner of expense or length of library wait-list prevent me from ravaging every other collection you’ve written. I imagined we’d frequent parks together in the springtime, lounge against tree trunks, sip organic lemonade and revel in the linguistic beauty of criticizing the world’s stupidity with a clever turn of phrase or plot device. I went about assuming my cynical bitchiness would compliment your satirical bite. You would construe a plot whose structure is founded on some startling, exaggerated cruelty, and I would be left, heartsick and emotionally scooped out, to contemplate the present injurious course of humanity (cue The Turtles’ “Happy Together”).
Saunders very clearly, and unjustifiably, became an idea to me—an idea which could only be dispelled by the reality of his work.
At the danger of sounding indulgently dramatic (I really did like “The Red Bow” which was, up til now, the only story I’d read by him), there are some stories in this collection that stick to the bones. But his style is so very brazenly and unrelentingly his style that it shocks me how well received it’s been on a whole. It’s not what I’d call ”approachable.” Am I glad/giddy/slightly-skeptical that a short story collection has been endorsed as “the best book you’ll read this year” by The New York Times? Yes/yes/yes. Short stories are the strange middle child of the literary world; you know, who cares? The novel is king. So boy did I ever think this was going to be a knockout when it jumped in the spotlight and commanded a place on every Tom, Dick and Harry’s “best of 2013″ lists.
But I found no beauty in it. It took me by the hand and led me into a dark house without furnishing, with no loving touch. Moments were built up and then cut off, yanked from their life support. These stories to me are bankrupt and oddly mutilated by jumpy, imbalanced language. For a book that’s dark and cynical, I found it strangely light. And while I can appreciate how the transitory nature of things exemplifies like 90% of our existence (oh yes, I’m still thinking about you, hot guy I saw on the subway the other day), a story should momentarily dig deep enough into the heart of something in order for its eventual lightness to feel excruciatingly unfair. I don’t think Saunders ever digs deep enough; he’s missing that other 10%. I read one of these stories and move on, unchanged by it, because it is never burdensome, because it demands little more from me than frustration at having to parse out the often incoherent thoughts of his characters.
There were elements from nearly every story I liked, which made it all the more frustrating. For instance, in “Victory Lap,” the perspective switches from a sister, to a brother, to their perpetrator, and then back around again. That’s interesting. That’s pretty frickin clever. But the experience of it is jilting; his language can’t finesse the transitions. Then for “My Chivalric Fiasco,” it’s funny stuff, and once again the main idea of it is clever, but that’s all it is, another clever idea that stands on little else. But see, this is me, straining against Saunders’ distinctive style. He doesn’t languish in description or character development. I’m wanting what Saunders doesn’t want to give. So you could see why our date didn’t go so well.
It wasn’t all bad. I actually think the experience of reading all of the stories together was probably more irksome than the individual stories themselves. As I said, his style is unrelenting, and if it’s not something you can get comfortable with, you’re going to end up exasperated by all 250 pages of it. So, in my attempt to break from what’s been a holistic haranguing thus far, here’s what I liked more than I didn’t:
“Sticks” was my favorite. And not because it was 2 pages, but because he actually started to carve out a world, to shape people via description, not just strange language: “We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us.”
I think reading “Puppy” and “Escape from Spiderhead” was as close to emotionally moved as I got. I loved the ending of “Escape from Spiderhead.” And I liked the strange reality he created in it. It’s the kind of satire I respond to. Same goes for “Exhortation” for satire. That story had a great tone, a phony kind of service-with-a-smile, put-your-best-foot-forward, the-power-of-positive-thinking bullcrap that makes me want to burn self-help books.
While I pretty much hated the way Saunders wrote the voice in “The Semplica Girl Diaries” (An example: “Why were we put here, so inclined to love, when end of our story = death? That harsh. That cruel. Do not like.”), I liked what he was trying to say. It’s nothing new though. I mean, how long have people been trying to keep up with the Joneses? Forever. But Saunders does a good job of making an absurd idea, like girls hanging from a wire in your front yard for decorative purposes, seem totally normal. Which I think is the mark of a good satirist.
So I’m not writing off the guy forever. What author should be so irrationally ignored if they have a body of work I’ve barely paid attention to? I’m merely positioning myself among that minority who would not categorize Tenth of December as his best. I like to think his best is just something I haven’t read yet. Is that the faint glimmer of optimism through this grumpy fog? No, it’s the mighty influence of recommendation. My short stories professor urged me to read Saunders after I wrote a story about emotions being manufactured and sold as food (so naturally I’m now weirded out by the parallels it has to “Escape from Spiderhead”). Bottom line: I’m going to give it another chance, because damn it, the idea of you, dear Saunders, lingers.
You can read a few of the stories in Tenth of December on The New Yorker’s website. See Stories Available Online for links.